Thursday, 26 December 2013

The good people in our midst

Brave New World (The Star)
25 December 2013

They may be flawed, but their attempts at reaching something high and noble, no matter how grand or how small, is an inspiration and a comfort.


MY Students Union building in Sheffield University was called the Nelson Mandela building. There was a photo of the man along with a small write-up on his struggle near the entrance of the union. The picture showed a heavy set person, with a tough face bordering on thuggish.
In 1990, I was in my final year and I remember watching the telly along with millions around the globe as Mandela was released from prison. It was a shock when the reporter announced his arrival. This tall, thin and extremely kindly looking man was not the image I had in mind.
Of course, harsh incarceration of almost three decades will change a man, but still, his appearance was a surprise. As was his philosophical stance with regard to the future of his country.
Justice was not to be obtained through retribution; instead it was to be through confession of past atrocities and following that, reconciliation.
He was convinced that the mere acknowledgement of evil having been done was sufficient to help close the door on a horrid history in order to move forward.
He was correct, of course. And he had the moral authority to persuade the rest of the nation. After all, this was a man who was jailed for almost 30 years simply for believing in equality.
If he could find it within himself to supress the need for vengeance, then who can argue?
In this way, the new South Africa started life not with blood on its hands, but with the much braver and harder choice of beginning existence based on forgiveness.
Naturally, there were critics of Mandela upon his release. His decision to stand for president and in that way to embroil himself in the tawdry world of real politics, frustrated some who thought that he would have served a better role as an elder statesman who could rise above the petty concerns of normal politicians.
I think history has proven that he was correct to do what he did. For it was only his force of personality and his moral standing that enabled him to steer South Africa out of the darkness that was apartheid in those uncertain early days.
I do not think anyone else could have done the same, and if it meant Mandela getting his hands grubby in politics and its manoeuvring, if it meant making poor decisions that may take some of the gloss away from his history, then that is a small price to pay.
A year after his release, I was unbelievably fortunate to find myself in a hand-me-down suit and borrowed academic robes, sitting in Dewan Tunku Canselor of Universiti Malaya, seeing and listening to the great man himself in person as he received an honorary degree.
Of course I had no opportunity to personally meet him, but that did not matter, I was in the presence of a key figure in 20th century world history and it was an amazing moment.
So, did the life of Mandela mean anything to me? Of course it did. He was a shining example of not only courage, determination and righteous zeal; he was also a paragon of patience, wisdom and compassion. He sets the standards for those seeking societal justice. His is the kind of leadership that one aspires to. Few public figures in history can make that claim, and in our current world I can’t think of any.
But one does not have to look to distant figures for examples on how to live. If a person is lucky, then he would find people closer to himself who could provide the same kind of wisdom and kindness.
I have been extremely fortunate in that regard for my life has crossed paths with many men and women far better than myself and to whom I would turn when in need of guidance, or sometimes, just a kind word.
One of those people is the late Professor P. Balan of the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya.
Prof Balan passed away a week after Mandela did, and it is to my regret that I was not in the country to pay my last respects.
I was the colleague of Prof Balan for 20 years. He was part of the flesh and bone of the faculty, having taught there from its second year of inception. Thousands of students have benefitted from his clear teaching style and his kindly ways. Thousands of lawyers in this country will have their memories of the professor and I dare say that most of those will be fond ones.
I did not teach the same subjects as he did and so our contact was not extensive. However, what little contact we did have was meaningful. It does not matter if it was about raking his encyclopaedic brain for some legal point or other, or if it was to get advice about a faculty matter. He was always there and his advice always wise.
Soft-spoken and gentle, he had the quiet authority to be able to tell a young hotheaded lecturer to cool it and pull on the brakes once in a while, and more importantly perhaps, he had an inherent basic decency to convince that self-same hothead, to actually stop, listen and take on said advice.
Careful, considerate, kind and always respectful, Prof Balan was the consummate professional and a wonderful teacher. A person whose example I would happily turn to.
In this festive period, I am reminded to be thankful. In a world which is full of people, both in the public arena and one’s own more personal sphere, who are deceitful, hypocritical and mean, let us not forget the good men and women who do exist. Be they a public figure far away, or someone just down the corridor from us.
Nobody is perfect and I am loathe to paint anyone as saintly and worthy of blind hero worship. But there are many who have a common basic decency and the strength to live their lives based on that core value.
They may be flawed, but their attempts at reaching something high and noble, no matter how grand or how small, is an inspiration and a comfort.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Sectarian Danger

Sin Chew Jit Poh
18 December 2013


The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought a much needed peace to Northern Ireland. It was in essence the end of hostilities between the forces that wanted independence from the British and those that wanted to stay within the United Kingdom.

But today after fifteen years, there still exist some violence, albeit on a much smaller scale. There are those who are unwilling to accept the Agreement and are intent on pushing their agenda through non-peaceful means. In the short time I was in Belfast two weeks ago, there were reports of an attempted car bomb and a shooting.

Part of the problem of Northern Ireland is that the conflict, although political was couched in religious terms; namely protestant versus Catholics. It thus takes on a certain emotional resonance that would otherwise probably be missing.

This doubtlessly feeds the flames of those still intent on waging war, even when the vast majority of the people in that region simply want to live their lives in peace and move on.

It is a country that very clearly illustrates the dangers of sectarianism and it is often used as a prime example of how religious differences can exacerbate a dangerous situation.

What then is the solution? I of course am in no position to posit any sort of ideas with regard to Northern Ireland, but I do feel it necessary to point out that too simplistic an analysis of the situation is misguided.

There will be those who will use Northern Ireland or Syria or Iraq, as an argument for the need for religious unity, or more accurately religious homogeneity. This is to me the wrong way of looking at things.

It is very rare that religion is the cause of conflict. Normally the true roots of conflict can be found in economic terms: the battle between those who have and those who do not. Or between those who are fearful of losing what they have against those who are challenging the status quo.

Religion becomes a useful rallying cry to disguise such base desires with a veneer of morality. It becomes easier to use religion in this way especially if there has been unequal treatment between peoples of differing faiths in the first place.  And if that unequal treatment was also joined with the demonising of the “other’, then what we have are seeds of hatred sown deep.

My argument is that to avoid religious conflict, what is needed is not religious homogeneity. That in fact is a brutal forcing of one spiritual ideology on everyone when surely spirituality by its very nature will be as diverse as the number of peoples who seek it.

Instead what has to be done is to ensure that all people of all faiths (and this includes those who share the same basic faith with you) are equally treated with dignity and respect. That the freedom of religion, limited only by the by the boundaries of general morality and the rights of others, is respected and protected.

It also means that crude acts of demonising and exclusion be replaced by understanding and inclusiveness; where one celebrates the similarities that are shared rather than the minor differences that are had.  For surely, it is far harder to use religion as a tool to encourage conflict when one’s right to practice one’s faith is safe and when one is living in a society that promotes mutual respect, not hatred. 

Treasuring national treasures

Brave New World (The Star)
11 December 2013

There’s a lesson from a family who gave their art collection to the public to make sure it is well preserved.


I AM writing this in London.
This sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. Firstly, I am in Walthamstow Central, at the very end of the Victoria tube line and hardly Belgravia. Secondly I am crashing at my mate’s bedsit; warm, dry and most cosy, but hardly the Dorchester.
Finally, I am not here on my own steam. My paltry lecturer’s pay does not emit much steam.
I am only here because of work. I was in Belfast to attend and present a paper at a human rights workshop.
While I was there, a colleague at the workshop kindly offered to drive me around the city. He took me to areas which were very much divided by the Troubles. Areas most clearly defined as Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Unionist.
Despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought peace to an area beset by decades of violence, there still existed physical reminders of a troubled past.
Ugly walls made of brick and metal separated huge swathes of the city and up till today, public roads are closed by gates upon nightfall. But even in the sad divisions of this society, the expression of said divide was oft times expressed in beautiful murals.
Although there lies an underlying sadness when viewing these public works of art, celebrating and confirming as they do a sharp and violent societal cleavage, one can’t help but be taken aback by their artistry.
And there is also a glimmer of hope when one sees newer murals that embrace values such as human rights; murals that quite pointedly have replaced earlier works which conversely glorify and encourage sectarianism.
I am not in any way some sort of culture vulture. Being as uneducated as I am in the fine arts, I can out-philistine most anyone.
But being cultured is not a prerequisite to being moved by how art can so succinctly and poignantly reflect the human condition in all its glory and profanity. Or even to simply appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of people who create things of beauty.
In that sense, my trip has seen me most fortunate. After my Irish jaunt and my exposure to art as a political statement, I made a stop in London.
While I was wandering the streets parallel to that hell on earth known as Oxford Street, I found myself in a museum called the Wallace Collection.
In all honesty, the only reason I went in was because it said “Admission Free” and I had a couple of hours to kill.
Once inside, however, I was blown away by the whole thing.
First and foremost, the collection was at one time the private property of the Wallace family. They had bequeathed the whole thing to the state so that it can be enjoyed by the public.
“Collection” is a weird thing to call it though. A collection is how you may describe my humble stash of comic books.
The Wallace “collection”, on the other hand, includes works of art that ranged from the 15th to the 19th century and boasts paintings by Rembrandt, Bol, Hals, and Gainsborough amongst thousands of others.
Wandering through this huge, once private, residence, mind boggling at how one family could have found itself the possessor of such a diverse and copious assemblage of classics, I could not help but be amazed at the beauty that humans can create.
It was all so incredible that the experience was humbling. Not only because I was surrounded by such magnificence, but also because it was all so fragile.
I found it astounding that a family could be far-sighted enough to basically give all their treasures to the public and the state in turn to ensure that it is all well cared for and preserved.
It all brings to mind how careless some are with national and world treasures and it made me reconsider my view of myself.
Because perhaps being a philistine is not about being uneducated; instead I would say it is about being incapable of appreciating history and beauty when it is staring you in the eye.
In which case I am not a philistine, but I can think of many idiots who are.

Desecration of Bujang Valley

Sin Chew Jit Poh
5 December 2013


Oh, the irony! The seventh of December will be the twenty fifth anniversary of  Malaysia becoming a party to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (or the World Heritage Convention in short); and what do we read in the papers? An ignoramus property developer has destroyed an ancient candi (temple) dating from the 8th Century.
The candi we are speaking about here lies in the Bujang Valley in Kedah and it is part of one of our most ancient archeological sites.  At the time of writing, we have no idea as to which incompetent government agency allowed for this development to occur on a site of such historical importance in the first place. And just to make it absolutely clear, this country’s government has a responsibility to protect all our heritage sites. Let me reproduce Article 4 of the World Heritage Convention of which we have been party since 1988.
“Each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State. It will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation, in particular, financial, artistic, scientific and technical, which it may be able to obtain”.
It can’t be clearer than that. The government must protect the Lembah Bujang complex. It is clearly part of our heritage and it can easily be considered a world heritage too. I simply do not understand how a development project can be approved on the site.
Could it be that the Malaysian government has become so warped and twisted that they do not believe the site is worthy of protection because it is a Hindu site and not a Muslim site? After all it is quite clear that it is this country’s Islamic past which is considered to be more important than our Hindu and animistic past.
Perhaps, but there is no hard evidence of this. What we do know is that the necessary level of protection for this site was missing and now a valuable part of our history is gone forever.
In a country like ours, where most ancient buildings are made of wood and therefore rot away, it seems madness that we do not care for what little stone artifacts that we have. We are not as culturally rich as Java, with their beautiful temples like the Hindu Prambanan and Buddhist Borobudur. We therefore cannot be careless with what we do have.
I am extremely angry at this cultural desecration. I want to see all those responsible punished. I want to shame the government in charge of allowing this thing to happen. I am feeling this way not because I am Hindu, since I am not. I am doing this because I am Malaysian and I do not like to see idiots running rampant and destroying a part of my heritage and my history.